QUEBEC — In a world often hostile to migration, Canada has stood out, welcoming thousands of refugees fleeing war and seeking a haven. It has been a feel-good time for Canada, proud of its national tolerance.
On Sunday, that was upended when a man walked into a mosque and started shooting, killing six people and wounding eight. The man accused of being the gunman, Alexandre Bissonnette, was charged with six counts of murder on Monday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it an act of terrorism, and there was a collective outpouring of remorse and empathy. But the attack also forced Canadians to confront a growing intolerance and extremism that has taken root particularly among some people in this French-speaking corner of the country.
“Certainly Islamophobia has been increasing for some time,” Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, said by telephone from Montreal.
But he said the attack was nonetheless shocking. “It is overwhelming, unthinkable,” he said.
A Muslim woman in Quebec has been kicked out of a language course for the second time because of her refusal to remove a religiously-understood face covering. The Egyptian immigrant made headlines when it was revealed provincial Immigration Department officials expelled her from a government-sponsored French class several months ago after she refused to take off her niqab. Known only as Naema in Quebec media, she had since enrolled in another government-sponsored French class, this time at a community centre for immigrants in Montreal.
But almost as soon as the Quebec government got word she was attending class in her niqab, it confronted her again, forcing her to make the same decision she made in November 2009. “It is a copy and paste of what happened last week,” said Samer Majzoub, who heads the Canadian Muslim Forum, a non-profit organization that has been providing support for Naema.
Quebec Immigration Minister Yolande James appeared to move quickly in addressing the latest contribution to the province’s ongoing debate over the accommodation of religious and ethnic minorities. Some commentators have argued Naema had been unreasonable in her demands, which reportedly included giving oral presentations with her back facing the co-ed class. She had been enrolled in the part-time course for around 45 days and had yet to hear of any complaints from her teachers, Majzoub said.
Her expulsion from the college French course in November is the subject of a complaint the woman filed with the Quebec human rights commission.
After months of balancing a woman’s religious beliefs with her desire to learn French, the Quebec government stepped into her classroom to offer an ultimatum: take off the niqab or drop the course. The woman opted to keep her Islamic face-covering and has filed a human rights complaint against the government. In the province of Quebec where the government frequently faces accusations of doing too much to accommodate minorities, these actions have prompted a fair bit of praise.
The woman began taking a French course designed for immigrants at a Montreal college in February 2009 but she refused to remove her niqab while men were present. The college was initially willing to accommodate her, but eventually balked as her demands escalated. In what appears to be a highly unusual move, provincial Immigration Minister Yolande James intervened. Officials from her department, acting with the minister’s knowledge, met with the woman to discuss her options.
Several groups, including several teachers’ unions, applauded the government for drawing a line in the sand. So did moderate Muslim groups. “When people come to Canada, we’re not coming to the Islamic Republic of Canada,” said Raheel Raza, a Muslim women’s-rights activist who has argued for a public ban on religious face coverings. The Canadian Muslim Forum, which claimed the woman was intimidated by other members of her class, said the move amounts to a misreading of the situation.”In Quebec people have the right to wear what they want,” spokeswoman Kathy Malas said.